The Afghan Air Force: When ‘Buy American’ goes wrong

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Recent reports warn that the Afghan Air Force may be grounded once all U.S. forces and contractors leave Afghanistan. This comes as no surprise given the Afghan Air Force’s reliance on U.S. contractors to maintain aircraft (to be fair, the U.S. Air Force also relies heavily on contractors for aircraft maintenance). However, it didn’t have to be this way. 

In 2012, Congress set in motion a policy that ultimately decreased the self-sufficiency of the Afghan Air Force to the benefit of U.S. aircraft manufacturers and contractors. Now, that policy is coming home to roost.

For decades, Afghanistan flew Russian made Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters. Those aircraft were well-suited to the high altitudes and dusty terrain of Afghanistan. Afghan pilots and technicians knew those helicopters well. When the United States started building a new Afghan military after 2001, Afghan commanders and officials said they wanted more of the Russian birds. The Department of Defense proceeded to purchase Mi-17s for Afghanistan.

Then, geopolitics intervened. In 2012, Congress imposed a ban on using federal funds to purchase military hardware from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s military exporter. In addition to selling Mi-17 helicopters to the United States for the Afghan Air Force, Rosoboronexport sold aircraft and weapons to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who was using that equipment against his own people.

Congress understandably did not want to enrich Russia and indirectly subsidize “the mass murder of Syrian civilians,” as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at the time. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) argued that U.S. funds should be used to purchase U.S.-made aircraft for Afghanistan — aircraft such as the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which is made in Blumenthal’s home state of Connecticut. 

The Defense Department pushed back. Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey both told Congress that the Mi-17 was the right helicopter for Afghanistan, the Afghans wanted it, and that in an effort to build capacity and self-sufficiency of the Afghan forces as quickly as possible, it was important to give them the airframe they knew. 

The bottom line was that even if it could be argued that the Black Hawk was a “better” or cheaper helicopter (cherry-picked data could make the case in either direction), the disruption caused by changing flying horses in midstream was a detriment to the mission of building an Afghan security force that could take the lead in fighting the Taliban.

Eventually, Congress prevailed. In 2017, the Department of Defense delivered the first UH-60 Black Hawks to Afghanistan to augment a growing fleet of U.S.- and Brazilian-made planes and helicopters that the Afghans could not maintain on their own. Afghanistan then began the phase-out of Mi-17s. At that time, I was the lead writer of the Lead Inspector General reports on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. As subsequent Lead IG reports noted, the transition might have been a done deal, but it was not to the benefit of the Afghan security forces and it raised a lot of questions about the implementation.

Initially, the United States was going to purchase 159 Black Hawks (in 2020 the Defense Department announced a reduced procurement of only 53). When the first Black Hawks arrived in Afghanistan, the country had two-dozen usable Mi-17s. Why the number of Black Hawks? How would Afghanistan meet the pilot and crew needs for so many new helicopters? How would the Afghan Air Force compensate for the reduced lift capacity and lower ceiling of the Black Hawks? What was the long-term cost of training and maintenance?  

Mi-17 pilots would have to be retrained on a new-to-them helicopter — not all would qualify. U.S. military advisers had concerns about whether Afghanistan had enough potential recruits capable of being certified as Black Hawk crews. 

Afghan technicians performed 80 percent of required maintenance on Mi-17s, and for the foreseeable future, Afghanistan would be entirely reliant on U.S. contractors to maintain the Black Hawks (as with the Afghan Air Force’s C-130 cargo planes). To close the lift-gap created by the transition to Black Hawks, the Defense Department was going to provide the Afghans with another airframe with which they had no experience: CH-47 Chinooks. Thankfully, Congress halted funding for that. 

Ultimately, in an effort to sanction Russia, it appears that Congress set in motion a chain of events that sent taxpayer money to U.S. businesses to the detriment of Afghan security. There were other alternatives at the time, such as buying Mi-17s through third countries such as India. Russia still would have benefited, but at least the Afghan military would have one air platform it could continue to use with little-to-no U.S. support. Now, the Afghan Air Force has about a dozen Mi-17s that it can turn to when the 150 U.S. and Brazilian aircraft in its inventory are sitting on the tarmac for lack of maintenance. 

Sean D. Carberry is a foreign policy and national security writer and founder of Taimani One. He most recently served at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General as managing editor of the Lead Inspector General reports to Congress on overseas contingency operations. Previously, he was a foreign correspondent for NPR based in Kabul and has reported from more than two-dozen counties, including Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Follow him on Twitter @sdcarberry17.

Tags Afghan Air Force Black Hawk helicopter Chuck Hagel John Cornyn Mil Mi-17 us troop withdrawal War in Afghanistan
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